There’s a certain amount of skepticism that most people will probably bring to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and it will come from different directions. The trailer isn’t all that great. The poster doesn’t instill much confidence in the product. It’s from a director that has a fairly hit or miss reputation with critics. It’s based on a beloved and very brief kids book that many adults today (myself included) grew up with and know it could never be made into anything more than a short in its current form. Then there’s the title, which people probably don’t get much of a kick out of saying unless they’re reading the story to their own kids at night.
Forget all of that negativity and try not to be a cynic. The film adaptation of Judith Viorst’s beloved classic book of a young man experiencing a bummer of a day retains the sentiment of the original material while expanding it to natural lengths. It feels playfully like a kids movie that was made by kids and for kids with just a smattering of adult jokes thrown in to make sure the grownups are paying attention. Kids will laugh, adults will be entertained, no one will be taxed by the film’s economic and well paced 81 minute running time. It’s actually a really charming, funny, surprising, very good movie.
Young Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is having one of those days. Decidedly a middle child in his family, he finds himself stuck between an older brother (Dylan Minnette) stressing out about the prom that night with his odiously mean girlfriend (a hilariously uppity Bella Thorne) and passing his driving test in the same day, a diva-ish sister (Kerris Dorsey) who’s about to star in her high school musical as Peter Pan, and a baby that insists on having his favourite pacifier or he’ll become insufferable. He’s about to celebrate his 12th birthday on the same night as a rich, dullard, blowhard (Lincoln Melcher) that will keep all his friends and classmates away. He wakes up with gum in his hair, he gets teased at school, he doesn’t get the country he wants to talk about for his school project despite his eagerness, everyone around him flaunts how great everything is and his unemployed aeronautical engineer stay at home dad (Steve Carell) and his publisher mother (Jennifer Garner) are too caught up in everything else to be helpful. So on the eve of his birthday, he wishes that everyone around him could have a miserable day just so they can see what he had to go through. Then he seemingly gets his wish and his family gets more than they bargained for.
Really the book only comprises maybe a third of the opening thirty minutes, with some minor modern updates scattered in here and there, but first time screenwriter Rob Lieber stays true to Viorst’s core sentiment: that sometimes days can suck horribly without explanation and that life can bounce back from said crappiness with a healthy dose of positivity. In terms of life lessons, it’s an important one to learn, and something that kids and adults tend to take for granted. The way that director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids) frames everything feels like it’s coming from the kid’s perspective, though, and never from the point of view of adults with a sense of nostalgia for their own traumatically awful days. The jokes are sharp and hit the mark a lot more than they miss, and everyone seems like a great sport about the whole thing once they have to start getting embarrassed in their own special ways that are far more original than cringe-worthy.
Despite the presence of comedic veterans like Carell and Garner (and brief cameos for others like Jennifer Coolidge as a driving instructor or Burn Gorman as a high school drama teacher), the film really belongs to Oxenbould, who isn’t only perfectly cast, but goes the extra mile to make his character have added layers. He’s as adept at physical comedy as he is the turn of a phrase, making something as throwaway as tripping over a sprinkler head into something really funny. He’s the perfect foil for everyone around him, and although everyone in the audience knows that Alexander is blowing his problems out of proportion to some degree, Oxenbould still finds ways of making the character sympathetic instead of into a petulant little brat. He’s so good that when Carell manages to get a few laughs in a scene opposite the young actor that it’s Oxenbould who’s being the generous one and not Carell.
This is a good natured approach to family filmmaking, free from cynicism and fear of pandering too far towards kids or too much to the older folks shelling out the money for tickets. It’s natural and unforced in terms of tone and execution while still featuring a bevy of inventive gags and jokes. Even the film’s more heartwarming final third never fully bows to clichés by subverting stock movie speeches in favour of newly worded ones that feel fresh, organic, and like they’re coming from actual human beings. It’s worth a shot if you have kids, and even if you don’t and you just want 80 minutes away from a crappy day. It’s a nice pick-me-up.